Road Trip Yucatan: The Pink Lagoon at Las Coloradas and Tizimin
Yucatan road Trip Day 2 Report
After spending a couple of nights in Merida we were ready to continue our road trip heading north in the Yucatan peninsula toward the gulf coast (Gulf of Mexico) to Las Coloradas. I have read about the pink lagoon for some time now and was looking forward to experience it first hand.
Las Coloradas is a small and remote fishing village nestled between the gulf and the Rio Lagartos biosphere reserve. The reserve encompasses a vast area of wetlands and lagoons, home to the famous pink flamingo, turtles, giant crocodiles (we saw one in the river) and more. It got its name from and is known for the pink coloured lagoons off the gulf coast. The key to the colour is the salt production facility but more on that later.
Las Coloradas sits on the cost about two and a half hours drive from Valladolid. We set of in the morning for a day trip intending to return to Valladolid before dark. After an authentic breakfast of chilaquiles with fried eggs and Mexican coffee at our hotel El Meson del Marques we set off on hwy 295 north looking forward to exploring a bit along the way. The highway is narrow with only one lane going in each direction and no shoulders to speak of, so you have to be alert. Otherwise it is in good condition and easy to drive.
Along the road we saw many locals on their converted bicycles carrying wood to their homes I assume to build fire for cooking. There are villages along the road and the highway cuts right through their Center. In each village small restaurants were filled with locals seated at plastic tables set in the shade. It seems like a social community where everyone knows each other.
We passed the archeological site Ek Ballam circa 1200 bc and drove in to the gate to take a quick look but decided to dedicate another day to visit the site.
The one larger city on the road is Tizimin, situated about half way between Valladolid Las Coloradas. Tizimin is known for its craft market where you can buy the famous rebozos, traditional shawls with long fringes, or huipils, the white embroidered traditional Mayan dresses. In the Centre at Parque Principal stands the large Church of the Three Kings and adjacent imposing monastery. We stopped at the busy plaza with not a tourist in sight. We caught the tail end of the annual Feria de Reyes, or Three Kings Festival (Dec 28 to Jan 6), as the square was full of men milling around in traditional guayaberas, the dress shirts with two vertical pleats on the back, and women in the traditional huipils. It is interesting to note that before Christianity the Mayan had a Three Deity celebration of their own: Yum Chaak (rain), Yum K’aax (agriculture) and Yum Ik (wind). With the spread of Christianity these deities were replaced by the biblical Three Kings: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.
Within an hour after leaving the bustling Tizimin we reached the Rio Lagarto, the river, not the town. If you spend the night in the area it would be in the town of Rio Lagarto as this is the only place other than a Tizimin where you can find accommodation. The town of Rio Lagarto is situated on the gulf coast directly north of Vallladolid and 30 minutes east of Las Coloradas. The place to stay is the small hotel Villa de Pescadores.
Soon after we crossed the bridge over the river we turned right onto the Las Coloradas road (follow the signs) and followed its winding path east. If your GPS gives up know that Las Coloradas is situated past the salt production facility so don’t give up, you are on the right track, just keep going a little longer after you pass the salt making compound.
The best way to reach the lagoons is by taking the first dirt road to the right just as you reach the village. At first you pass an area where a bunch of men on motorcycles try to flag you down. I would keep going to the dirt road ahead. The guys on the bikes are guides who can take you around the maze of gravel paths around the lagoons and explain the phenomena of the pink lagoons. There is cooperative called Cooperative Tourismo of Los Coloradas Mototours with 21 members offering to drive in front of you down the maze of sandy roads and show you the beauty of the place.
We drove down the gravel road alongside the lagoon and parked at the edge of the water. The area is covered with shallow lagoons and the first thing that struck us was where is the pink? The colour of the water around us was more muted orange than pink. It was a bit underwhelming. Soon though, the sun came out from behind the clouds and as we turned the one lagoon behind us turned cotton candy pink.
We first walked around along the narrow roads cutting through the vast lagoons and saw pink flamingos all around in the water, standing in their colonies.
Eventually we partnered up with one of the motorcycle guides Mario Canul and it turned up to be a partnership that made our day. Mario is the president of the co-op and is also known as Jacky Chan because of their look alike features. We first asked him to only take us to where we can see the flamingos up close but in no time realized that his knowledge and warm personality were too much fun to give up so quickly so he stayed with us for the duration and even arranged for and joined us for a fresh lobster lunch before we left.
The network of shallow lagoons are part of a salt production facility just inland from the gulf coast. To produce salt these lagoons are flooded with water, treated with certain organisms and allowed to evaporate, leaving behind sea salt that is then processed for use. The pink color of these shallow lagoons is created by brine shrimp and other micro organisms that are put in the lagoons by the salt production process and can live at a certain concentration of salt. The most vibrant pinks are seen in May and June when water levels, evaporation and concentration of these organisms combine to give the water the vibrant cotton candy hue. If you are not there in June make sure you visit on a sunny day and around noon. Evidently, this is when you see the best colours. We were lucky (not really, I researched) to be there on the right day at the right time. The pink of the lake was magnificent and unusual under the bright Yucatecan sun.
Mario drove his motorcycle in front of our SUV (that’s how they guide you) and led us through remote network of dirt roads along a vast system of lagoons until we encountered a colony of pink flamingos milling about in the water. The story is that flamingos eat the brine shrimps and microorganisms in the water and therefore turn pink. I don’t know if this is science or folklore but will leave it to you to figure it out.
After the flamingos Mario took us to what he called a natural Mayan “spa”. We walked to the edge of one of the lagoons walking on white clay looking ground. Mario knelt down and dug deep into the clay. He came up with a mound of soft white clay, clean and free of fragrance. According to Mario the Mayans who lived in this area and worked in the jungles used to spread this white “mud” all over their bodies to protect themselves from insect bites and the burning sun. I spread some of it on my skin and let it dry. When I washed it off my skin was soft as silk. We took a large ball of this clay back home with us and I used it for a few days as a facial mask. It was fun to participate in this ancient ritual and I am sure it was good for my skin.
From there we crossed a small sandy ridge and came up onto the most beautiful stretch of white sand beach. Only a small sandy ridge separates the Gulf of Mexico from the lagoons. It is remote, isolated and breathtaking. Being the beach bum that I am, we walked along the beach picking shells in the line of seaweed that was washed to shore. Most of the beautiful shells had crabs living in them. Mario took the larger one I found, hence older, with him for lunch or dinner and threw the smaller ones back into the sea. At home he was going to drop the poor thing into boiling water to coax it out of the shell and get it ready to become lunch. I will stick to cooking vegetables. I did find and keep a couple of beautiful, delicate, almost see through shells that remained intact being protected by the sea weed. One thing about the sand on the gulf that made it uncomfortable to walk along the edge of the water was that you sank into the wet sand well below your ankles. It was like walking in thick mud. I was too excited to worry about it a romped around anyway but in hindsight you better walk on the drier, more dense sand.
As Mario was describing to us how he makes shellfish soup we were getting hungry and ready for a late lunch. Asking Mario where we could eat he suggested the only restaurant in town and called them to see what was fresh on their menu. It so happened they had fresh lobsters so, vegetarian or not lobster lunch it was. Of course we invited him to join us and he kindly accepted.
We drove back behind Mario on his motorcycle and parked by the only restaurant in town. Only locals were to be seen and there was a table of 10 full of chatty, happy diners. After ordering the food Mario excused himself for a few minutes to run home and out his just gathered seashell crab lunch in his fridge, I suppose to have for dinner that night. He came back a moment later and we enjoyed langosta alla plancha and camarones empanizados. We had a beer each, non for Mario as he said he was working, and for some reason I pushed the bottle of beer over twice. I am not a drinker, perhaps that’s why, or maybe I was too excited by the entire experience. At the end of lunch we said our goodbyes, exchange cards and social media information and promised to cross path again. Contact info for Mario on Facebook, you can private message him to arrange for him to guide you on you visit, I highly recommend.
It was getting late and we had to start our drive back. It was hard to let go of this magical place and I wished I had allocated more time for the visit. It will have to wait unti next year.
En route back we crossed the bridge over the Rio Lagarto and to my amazement I saw a giant alligator floating on top of the water below. We turned around to take a closer look (not too close) and it was fascinating to watch this large creature (4 meters at meats) slither effortlessly through the water in search fir food. Never go into unknown waters. You never know what may lurk inside.
Other than that the trip back was uneventful and we were soon back in our hotel contemplating dinner.
More in that in the next post.